By Nishchal N Pandey
Anarkali Honaryar, the only non-Muslim woman member of parliament of the Afghan lower house received this year’s prestigious UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for Tolerance and Non-Violence. She was recognized by the world body for her pivotal role in helping women who suffer from domestic abuse, forced marriages and gender discrimination and for her commitment to promote the ideals of human dignity, mutual respect and tolerance in her country. An Afghan lady receiving such a distinguished honour is a matter of pride for all South Asians. What is even more noteworthy is the fact that Afghans are slowly emerging on the regional and global stage.
It has already been five years since Afghanistan joined the SAARC but it has still not been possible to chart out concrete ways to help the country come out of the shackles of civil war. The decade of 2010-2020 has been declared as the ‘Decade of intra-regional connectivity’. Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location at the crossroads of the Silk Route made it the meeting point of great philosophic and cultural traits with influences of the Indian and Zoroastrian traditions and the Persian Greek and Roman empires. . Its role as a connecter and as a land-bridge between Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia needs to be thoroughly re-examined. Economic issues, primarily trade and investment, must be given due focus in any discussion and debate on the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan can reap benefits from entrepöt trade between Central Asian countries and the rest of SAARC. Moreover, even today, Afghanistan is seen as a viable doorway for South Asian countries for access to the oil and gas of Central Asian Republics like Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Thus, in order to promote economic growth and reduce poverty in Afghanistan, enhancing its cross-border and transit trade with neighboring countries is a must. Road and railway connectivity must be promoted on a burden-sharing basis wherein neighbours share the costs.
According to India’s former envoy to Kabul, Jayant Prasad, “Peace and stability in Afghanistan is the most important global security challenge for the world.” The way to go about it therefore is for the international community to recognize the crucial role that trade, transit and better connectivity can play in this regard.
SAARC regional centres can also be set up in Afghanistan just like in other member countries. The SAARC development fund can be earmarked for the education of Afghan girls, technical assistance, capacity-building, and making the country self-reliant. It is a heartening fact that the South Asia Foundation has established a UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Centre for Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage in Kabul where subjects such as archaeology, history of art and civilization, museology, epigraphy and so on are being taught to students. Among other activities, the Centre will conduct a suitable training programme for Afghan specialists in cultural heritage conservation.
Additionally, how swiftly Afghanistan can renovate and promote the historical site of the Bamiyan has a bearing on Buddhist pilgrims and tourists visiting the country. It can be inserted into the popular Buddhist pilgrim circuit of Lumbini-Bodhgaya-Sarnath-Kushinagar. This will give a boost to tourism as it can attract Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Sri Lankan and Singaporean Buddhists.
There has been a lot of talk about a ‘regional solution’ for Afghanistan’s problems. However, no country has a concrete definition of what constitutes this solution. It is extremely important for all immediate neighbours to be on the same page regarding this solution. Post-2014, Afghanistan needs to focus on the reintegration and rehabilitation of the thousands of fighters belonging to various armed groups as this is critical for ensuring durable peace. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are among the five largest contributors to the UN peacekeeping operations. There is no reason why they cannot contribute to peace and reconstruction in their own region. Following the American withdrawal, an idea of a South Asian peacekeeping contingent can also be mulled over but only after a certain degree of stability has been established and after receiving the mandate from the UN. Internal security challenges stemming from ethno-linguistic or religious zeal, prevalence of small arms and narcotic smuggling, ambiguous power relationships, and weak political structures will discourage SAARC member states to commit ground troops. However, in the longer term, the idea of a regional solution cannot be taken forward without having the rest of South Asia on board.
Erecting a gigantic security force itself cannot guarantee peace and stability in countries with a long history of deadly conflicts. People must be given employment opportunities, schools need to re-opened, focus must be given to women empowerment, and corruption needs to be controlled urgently. Instead of major powers wasting time and resources on framing strategic equations inside the country, they need to see what Afghanistan has to offer to the region and vice versa, and try and capitalize on that. The region also has an equally big stake in Afghanistan’s stability.
Nishchal N Pandey
Chairperson, South Asia Foundation, Nepal
email: [email protected]